medium (narrative theory) While a medium has no inherent narrativity, as it is used to develop into a narrative form the medium has a specificity, it enables and carries story in different ways: an audio narrative will convey story without images, a literary novel does not produce sound and relies primarily on the printed word to convey story. Graphic novels combine image and text, and have relatively little text compared to a novel.
If a story is understood as a fabula, a story without a set medium or narration, then the storyteller can work with this to create a narratives in a range of mediums: film, drama, screenplay, graphic novel. The fabula might be considered to be the story as understood as a conscious understanding: the storyteller conceives the fabula and expresses it in a particular medium and format: book, screenplay, film. Then the reader, the audience is given and then understands a fabula: from the narrative they then hold the story, the fabula. Clarifying the differences in narration between written prose, the screenplay and the film helps with understanding how to narrate a story in each medium.
Written Prose: The action of the story is narrated through five methods of narration. Setting: the description of the place where the story action takes place. Immediate action: stating action, what characters do, as though it is happening in the moment: opening the door and stepping into the room I saw…. This is immediate action and in the moment. There is summary action: stating events without detail, combining narrative events into a summary: they went to China and then onto Australia where… In summary action the details, the physicality of events are not stated. Dialogue: this recounts speech, conversation in a narrative form to convey character and plot. Commentary: in prose fiction comments on the story from the point of view of an external or internal narrator: the implied author of the story offers external commentary, and there can be commentary by a character in the story, an internal narrator. A fiction story can be related in the present tense, events are happening now, or in the past tense, events have happened. The use of viewpoint, person, can be third person, speaking, telling the story about others: they went.... It can be first person, a person speaking and telling their story and what they saw others doing: I went and saw.... The narration can speak directly to the reader in the second person: You can see how....
In relation to prose and to a story narrator there are these terms. Heterodigetic: narration from a viewpoint that is not in the story. Homodiegetic: narration from a character in the story to some degree. Autodiegesis: the narrator is the central protagonist of the story. Also, the narrator focalises the story: there is external focalisation, telling the story from outside of the narrative, and internal focalisation: character based narration and viewpoint within the story. Focalisation is not used presently used in film theory but is an important term when considering the difference between narration in film and narration is written prose.
Literary narration, story in written prose, involves a set of choices in terms of narration/viewpoint which have hugely significant impact on the narrative: if the story is told by a single internal autodiegetic narrator then the only events in the story to be narrated are what the one character does, what they see, and what the narrator thinks others do. Alternatively with heterodigetic narration the story can be narrated showing any event and commenting on the actions and internal life of one or all of the characters.
Film Narration: In the medium of film, narration does not function in the same way as literary narration. Writing tells things, the screen shows things. Simply stating that film is a visual medium, it is comprehended primarily through what is seen, does not provide an adequate account of film narration. It can be understood by looking at different aspects of narration in film.
Narrative fiction is mimetic: it shows action as though showing a real world. The medium of film is able to do this because each and every shot of the films shows immediate action: showing something, a place, and event happening, a temporal event with duration, mimicking real life or rather creating a realism: giving the impression of events that could happen in an external reality. Film narrative uses dialogue for narrative, character and action. Mimesis is where narration in stage drama and film drama overlap. A play can be filmed simply be placing a camera to film it: the audience at the play would see a mimetic drama and the audience watching the recorded film of the play would see a mimetic drama. What this also indicates is what is specific to film, it creates a form of narration, the film, film narration has methods for controlling location, temporality and viewpoint, which might be better referred to as focalisation.
To join shots to indicate the passage of time the medium of film uses ellipsis: one shot edits to another shot progressing story action, with the audience being able to understand the temporal and spatial relationship between shots. The editing supports mimesis, and the temporal and spatial relationship between shots, the sequence of shots has a realism because they progress mimetic story events. Film narration will sometimes use on screen titles and noticeable scene transitions, fades, wipes, to indicate changed locations, and time, and this is needed because the immediate action of the image does not give a clear context and location for the story: titles will state specific places and times, so that the audience can understand where action takes place. Noticeable transitions are seen by the audience, so that a significant change of location or time can be understood: this is the same place and the same time, or this is a different place and either continuous action or an ellipsis of time. Locations are established as a narrative progresses and the ellipsis can be understood by the differences in relations to setting, and to the action on screen: a room is shown in bright sunlight and then in darkness, so time has passed. A person is shown getting into the shower and then dressing: time has passed and events in the story have progressed.
The continuity system maintains the realism of the narrative through the control of the image, the editing, and the action on screen. There is continuity of action, dialogue, costumes, make-up, props, special FX. These are controlled in production to have temporal coherence: continuity ensures that costumes, hair and make do not change randomly, and so there is a continuity: a temporal order in the narration of the film which is very unlikely to be present in the filmmaking process, which often takes place with the narrative being filmed out of order, and in terms of duration of film’s narrative, the filming in no way represents filmic time, the time of the story. Continuity enables the control of action, location and temporality, not actuality.
There is also continuity of sound, continuity of lighting: style, colour temperature, contrast range, exposure. There is visual continuity for editing: with shots that will change in a coherent order and control of image. This includes shot framing, composition and camera position with a range of conventions for narration: change of image size and screen sections, which is the control of framing and composition, and for camera position there is the 30 Degree Rule, 180 Degree Rule. To establish a continuity for where characters are looking there is the eyeline match, and for continuity of movement in the frame, the continuity system controls screen direction, change of screen direction, and movement in and out of frame. All of this contributes to narration because they progress story action and present a coherent story in terms of temporal and spatial narrative.
Of course there is film narration that deliberately aims to confuse the audience, make unclear what the plot actually is, but this misdirection is not the same as incoherence. The continuity system can be misused to confused time, place, action, but as part of the narrative rather than as non-narrative. Editing a set of shots randomly is incoherent, editing them so that at a specific point the audience is confused or misled is a narrative technique that is often used to create tension, intrigue and to unsettle.
Immediate action in the image, ellipsis to progress time, and film continuity to present events within a realist mimetic form, offers narrative, but crucially, and unlike written prose where a narrator is essential to the telling of the story, these aspects of film narration do not clarify the position of a narrator and the control of viewpoint in film narrative. Final narration is fundamentally different from prose narration: even when they present the same fabula, the same story.
There is no implied author, narrator for a film narrative, story action it is shown mimetically, not told. There is no overt narrator, author, in the medium of film unless the narrative uses verbal narration: voice over or by breaking the fourth wall to have a character who speaks to the audience. Then, with a narrator like written prose, by using spoken word like written prose, a film narrative can have an interior or external narrator: an unnamed narrator telling events, or a character in the story narrating in voice over or within the narrative: talking to the audience during scenes. This use of narration in narrative film which is also a feature in documentary that establishes focalisation through speech. This is a control of focalisation which most resembles written prose, because spoken word, like the written word tells the story, and comments on events. This is spoken viewpoint in film narrative, but film narration also has plot viewpoint, which focalises the narrative and techniques of filming that create viewpoint, filmic focalisation.
Plot focalisation in film, which is not dependent on the continuity system, is established through the plotting in the screenplay, selecting which character’s actions are shown, what are the events, the scenes that are used to tell the story so that in film narration a particular character or characters’ actions are followed. This sense of participating with a character does not necessarily lead to the audience taking on the point of view of the character, but the audience will have a knowledge of the character and be able to see, understand, judge, or empathise with what a character does. The screenplay establishes plot focalisation.
Within the filming and editing of scenes is filmic focalisation, which is unlike prose writing and is specific to the medium of film. In prose it is the practice to maintain focalisation for the entire story, the novel, and while focalisation in a novel can often change between chapters, with a different narrator being established this is not changed without a structured change within a prose narrative. In written prose changing focalisation within single passages is possible, but would be experienced as a chaotic form: it might be used to represent psychological disorientation or social disintegration. However, in film narration, there is filmic focalisation, and changing viewpoint in a scene is a standard practice. In film narration, filmic focalisation is set by staging, blocking, by editing to give viewpoint: observing, participating, by constructing objective viewpoint, subjective viewpoint, and psychological viewpoint.
The screenplay does not dictate how a scene will be filmed and edited to construct focalisation or how the audience understands the scene, what actions they see, and the emphasis given to the actions in the scenes, the sequences in the film, are controlled by camera angle, camera movement and editing. This is filmic focalisation in the sense that the medium of film enables this form of narration. It is based on the audience seeing and understanding from a particular viewpoint, and a changing viewpoint as the narrative progresses. The continuity system offers a coherent realism, a coherent set of events, but it is through direction, the choice of shots and the control of continuity that scenes are focalised.
Here one can understand what the role of the director is in terms of narration. Working from a screenplay the narrative continuity will be controlled, the scenes to be filmed will be coherent in terms of spatial and temporal progression, but within the filming of the scenes there are unique decisions in terms of focalisation: a scene will be shown from one person’s viewpoint, a scene will be observed from a distance, the focalisation will move from one character to another character at a key point in the narrative. Focalisation in film narrative is fluid, so that what is narrated is controlled within the scenes. If theatrical drama might be understood to give the audience in the theatre one viewpoint, they can see the stage, in film narration the director changes viewpoint for the audience during scenes: showing, telling the audience what they will see: directing the narrative and the story.
To indicate a distinction between focalisation and viewpoint. Focalisation indicates who’s story is being told, which character the narration is presenting: filming and editing can observe a character or participate with a character, and this can change within scenes. Viewpoint is the audience’s understanding in relation to this focalisation. This distinction indicates that focalisation is the construction and control of viewpoint in the film. If a film were shot with continuity and then edited with an incoherent focalisation, jumping from shot to shot and image size with no relation to the character viewpoint this would make the audience’s viewpoint incoherent even though the direction focalised the narrative: the audience’s would have to assume a coherence, constructing an understanding of the narrative through unclear fragments to make sense of the film’s narrative: the audience still have a viewpoint even if the film does not. In successful coherent direction, when the focalisation of a scene is constructed through direction that controls the narration, the choices in the filming, and in the editing of a scene, then the viewpoint of the audience is via the focalisation presented by the direction: film direction is the framing, the shots, the editing, the visual design, the performance, the music: all of the elements of the film that can be used to direct the audience’s attention, their perception and understanding of the narrative. In first films, short films one can watch a film where there narrative is fairly clear, but the sense of coherence is lost, watching the film is a process of seeing different shots, being aware of the image and the editing, and constructing a narrative through this, but a focalised narration will connect elements in the action into a coherent flow, a narration. This is comparable to what happens in speaking: when someone says something when the meaning is unclear then the words and their usages needs to be considered for them to be understood. But when speech is coherent it fluently moves to understanding so that meaning is conveyed and the statement has a realism. This comparison should not be taken to indicate that speech, combining words, and a sequence of shots are effectively the same: the rules of joining words to make sense are not the same as those for the medium of fil.
Screenplay: The screenplay is a specialist document, a particular type of story narration, that is unlike written prose fiction, and while this can appear counterintuitive a screenplay is not filmic narration: it’s not a description of a film, describing shots and editing in written form. The screenplay doesn’t set the focalisation for the filming of scenes.
Due to the specialization of the screenplay it’s often approached with false assumptions, but its form is quite specific. The screenplay presents only immediate action: action that can be filmed, so it does not present summary action. Immediate action is: Sam walks up the stairs. Summary action is: Sam learns French and then Spanish. The action of walking up the stairs can be filmed as an action by a camera, but there is no immediate action for learning one language, then another: to narrate this in film the summary action of learning a language would need to be changed to a set of immediate actions, a sequence of events. Also, a screenplay does not state the interiority of characters as this cannot be filmed: Sam decided he would no longer catch the train as he needed to avoid being seen in public. This interiority cannot be shown directly as it is an internal thought and to narrate this in a film there would need to be action: things shown, or stated in dialogue to indicate what Sam decides. Audience comes to understand a character through the character’s actions and the audience sense from this that they understand the character’s interiority, but this is constructed through immediate action which is narrated to offer clarity. In the screenplay dialogue is carefully crafted to convey character action, the character’s decisions and their understanding of events, so that the audience can also create an understanding of this, but this is not the same as narration in prose. The screenplay will not use literary narration so it avoid usings figures of speech, metaphors and analogy, because, again, they cannot be filmed.
The screenplay presents on the page as a relatively simple format. Scene slugs indicate location, direction indicates who is in the scene and what they do, and dialogue indicates what they say. The overarching rigour is that what is included in the screenplay is only what can be filmed, which will therefore produce a filmmable screenplay. This rigor can be difficult for a writer to establish because written prose offers so many options for narration and focalisation and the screenplay does not. Also, the screenplay does not direct the film, it provides plot focalisation by following the story action for specific characters, but it does not control focalisation in the scene.
New writers will often try to write a screenplay as though it describe a film, but this will only indicate shots that may or may not successfully focalise the story. The parallel here might between the composition, and the arrangement of this music composition: a musical score is quite specific, it can be played but how it is actually played, the arrangements of instruments used, and how they are orchestrated and conducted can be built from the score and there are many many possible variations of this. In film there is the screenplay and there are many different ways to direct it through the blocking, the action shown, the performance of the actors/characters, the shots chosen, and then the editing and post-production of the film, particularly its musical scoring change the focalisation. One could imagine watching a film and then describing everything that happens on the screen: this would be a screenplay of the film and it would be an extremely detailed document, but the screenplay narrates the story through a simple format written with immediate action in the present tense. This is the challenge of narration for the screenwriter: to tell a story that can be filmed and directed from the screenplay.
To review the differences between the mediums of written prose, screenplay and film narrative. Written prose, literary storytelling has narration and focalisation: an author who narrates, outside of the story, an external focaliser, and who inside the story is an internal focaliser. The script has plot focalisation: its follows characters. The script has immediate action and does not use the various types of narration and focalisation that written prose uses. The screenplay has no specific scene by scene focalisation as this would produce a highly detailed technical screenplay: there is the shooting script in film, which has notes for filming, but this is the final stage of screenwriting and is undertaken by the director not the screenwriter. The planning for filming can be in the shooting script, but the planning for filming can also be story boarded, developed during rehearsals and set during filming, and then this filmed material is defined and decided in editing: this is a filmic process, directorial process which the screenplay does not attempt to undertake. The film has plot focalisation based on the script and multiple and shifting focalisations in the film. This focalisation in filming is the work of film direction not the screenwriter.
The creators of a story, storytellers, writers, filmmakers understand their story through a fabula; their comprehension and understanding of the story as a cognitive understanding. We do not recall the exact words of a novel, or the entire dialogue of a stage drama or a film in our heads, but by watching a film, reading a novel, we create an understanding of the story. We do not recall the exact use of shots, camera angles, camera movements, the use of music and sound that narrates a story in film, we create the story of the film through this viewing. So, the fabula is presented in a medium, narrated, and we can understand a story across mediums, the novel, the film or the novel, and they can present the same story or versions of a similar story, a fabula. Stories exist as things, books, films, audio recordings, they are also events, dramas, screenings, readings, and they are also experienced and understood.
Understanding how a narrative medium is able to narrate a story is important. This is because there are often misperceptions about what a screenplay is, how it tells a story, and there are also misperceptions about what film direction is, as though it’s just one person deciding everything during a film production: as though authority is what defines someone as a director, but direction is the process of narration in all aspects of film: a person can be called a film director and take charge of the filmmaking process, deciding shots, indicating what the actors should do, but this is not directing, unless the person knows how to direct to narrate in the medium of film, and the screenwriter is not really a screenwriter unless they know how a screenplay narrates a story. The process of storytelling in screenplay, and on film, needs an understanding of how the medium narrates a story.
Copyright: Eugene Doyen 2019